November Reading List

Hello! Here (a few days late) is the list of all the awesome stuff I read in November:

  • House Carpenter,” also known as “The Daemon Lover”—an old Scottish ballad. I have three different versions of it on my November Spotify playlist (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Nickel Creek), and I was straight-up obsessed with it for like four days. Creepiest/best lyrics I’ve heard in a long time
  • Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
  • Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” by William Wordsworth
  • Frost at Midnight,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • These poems by June Jordan
  • Some random stuff by John Clare
  • The Monk Dilemma,” by Cameron Stewart
  • Parsley,” by Rita Dove
  • These poems by Anna Akhmatova, plus just the Wikipedia page about her life in general (“Snow” is my favorite poem of hers)
  • Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
  • Babi Yar,” by Yevgeni Yevtushenko
  • Lies,” by Yevgeni Yevtushenko

Happy reading, and happy December!! I’m weirdly hoping it gets colder here soon, just so that being in a wintery mood can feel more natural. I haven’t really been listening to any Christmas music because it still feels so unseasonable. It snowed once in early November and it’s been fairly warm since then. I don’t ordinarily hope for snow, so the season is off to a weird start for me.

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Late Summer Recap!

It’s been a long time since I last posted here! I would say it was because I’ve been really busy, but in truth that would only account for the first week or two. After that I started watching Game of Thrones, and that was sort of that.

The good news is that all of the stuff I have been busy with has been really exciting! Last weekend, I went on a writers’ retreat with the Ann Arbor Writers Workshop. We spent two days at a cabin in the woods in Lake, Michigan, reading and writing and workshopping each other’s pieces. There were also plenty of s’mores. I’ve had so much fun being a part of the workshop remotely this summer, and it was great to hang out with everybody in person and to get some writing done as well.

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While we were there, I started reading Stranger in a Strange Land, which has totally knocked me off my feet so far. There’s a brave nurse who risks her job and her life to do what’s right! There’s a journalist who gets arrested for being too heroic! There are sky taxis and Martians! And why haven’t ceiling tables been invented yet? (They hang from the ceiling and you can lower them to whatever height you want, and they never touch the floor or mess up your carpet or anything! I seriously can’t get over this.)

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While I’m on the subject of the writers’ retreat, I have some more delayed news: one of our members, Vahid Arefi, placed last month as the runner-up in Round 2 of Midwestern Gothic’s Summer Flash Fiction Contest! You can read his piece, “Unwed,” here.

On a more general note, summer is ending! This time next week, I’ll be back at school in Ann Arbor, taking classes and doing homework. Ordinarily, by this point in the summer, I’d feel a little resigned and maybe regretful that I hadn’t spent more time doing such-and-such (usually writing) during all of my free time. I do have a couple of regrets — I started writing a couple of songs that I never quite finished, and I never ended up going to the state fair — but I realized recently that I’ve done A TON of writing this summer! Granted, U of M’s summer is crazy long (four whole months!), so I’ve had a ton of time, but I still feel unusually good about this. Over the course of the summer, I’ve written two short stories, four short short stories, an essay, a couple of poems, a couple of songs, a crap ton of journalism (for my internship), and most of a novel. I don’t feel like doing the math to add up how many words that is, so I’ll just say it’s enough to leave me feeling really good about my summer.

Of course, I’m expecting school to be a different story — I’ll have homework to think about when I’m not working, not to mention various clubs and co-op-related activities. And (no point in lying here) I can already tell that until I’m all caught up on Game of Thrones, that’s going to be a bit of a time-consumer of its own. But I’m still determined to hit the ground running! I’m taking two separate creative writing classes this semester, a workshop and a tutorial, and my work can’t overlap between the two of them, which means I’ll likely be doing more fiction-writing this semester than I’ve ever done before.

So by December, depending on how I spend my time, I could either end up with quite a lot of carefully revised short stories I’m really happy with and ready to submit to publications and contests, or a handful of slipshod stories I didn’t try very hard to make awesome and don’t care to look at anymore. Either way, a lot of stories, but I know which outcome I’d prefer. Stay tuned to find out which path I choose!

And most importantly, I hope anybody who’s reading this has had a terrific summer! Happy September!

Caldwell Update– Winning Pieces

I already wrote about this a while ago, but this spring I was lucky enough to win the Alumni/Written Category of LHSP’s Caldwell Poetry Competition, although I submitted five poems and wasn’t sure which had won. Last week I got an email letting me know that two pieces of mine are going to be published in the LHSP Arts & Literary Journal! The poems are “Winter in Oz” (which reimagines Dorothy’s journey through Oz as something actually difficult) and “How Was Your Trip?” (a poem I wrote for my mom after babysitting my younger siblings alone for a week). I’ve had “Winter in Oz” sitting around for a particularly long while, so it’s good to have somewhere to put it finally. I’ve thought before about adapting it into a short story (mostly just because I got bored one time and wrote the first paragraph on my phone), but we’ll see if I’m ever in a dreary enough mood.

FAIR PEOPLE is up!

Issue #19 of Ginosko Literary Review is officially published!

As someone raised in Indiana and going to school in Michigan, I love the Midwest and feel at home in it, but I also know that thanks to politics, history, and general public culture, there are plenty of people who are not made to feel at home in the Midwest at all, even though they ought to be. (Obviously this problem extends beyond the Midwest, this is just the region I was thinking about when I wrote this story.) I was thinking last fall about how hard it can be to reconcile a love for one’s hometown with an awareness of the town’s underlying judgments and prejudices, and whether this reconciliation is even possible. The resulting short story, “Fair People,” is about Midwestern pride and the problems that exist under its surface. I often use real experiences of mine as very loose jumping-off points in fiction, so it’s based in part off of truth — namely that, like the narrator, I’m from Indiana and I went to a county fair last summer — but all of the characters and events are completely fictional. If you want, you can check it out at the link below. Enjoy!

http://www.ginoskoliteraryjournal.com/images/ginosko19.pdf

An Argument Against Sadism (Hear Me Out)

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody needs you to argue against sadism. It’s sadism. Everyone already knows it’s bad.

In the context of writing, though, I don’t think that’s totally true. Kurt Vonnegut has a list of 8 basics that he calls “Creative Writing 101,” and number 6 is this:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

I know obviously I’m in no position to argue with Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to writing, and I don’t want to — in fact I totally agree with this point. Writing is nothing without conflict. It’s important to put even the most charming characters — maybe even especially the most charming characters — into terrible situations, exactly for this reason, so that the reader gets a better idea of who they really are. (It also makes them more relatable. It’s better than reading about a character you really like just walking around and having a good day.)

But I disagree with the idea of that being sadism. And I know that seems nitpicky — it’s just a word he used to get your attention — but I’ve heard this idea elsewhere. A friend once told me that all writers are both sadists and masochists. That seemed like a bit of a melodramatic way to put it to me, but I also kind of got where they were coming from. It can be fun, really fun actually, to write about situations of conflict, because that’s where things get interesting! Since conflict is so central to writing, if you dislike writing about challenging situations, then you’re probably going to have a tough time writing any fiction at all. So the act of writing about these situations themselves — giving yourself that chance to really think about conflict — is probably what attracts a lot of people to writing in general. At least it is for me.

So there is pleasure to be found in putting characters into these situations. And this can seem weirdly close to a kind of sadism.

But this is where I think I disagree.

I’m not going to do that high-school-English-essay thing here where I give you the Merriam-Webster definition of something, but we all know that sadism is basically deriving enjoyment from the pain of others. I’d like to reiterate at this point that I’m a total amateur when it comes to writing and that I know about as much as any presumptuous undergrad with an English major can claim to know about it, because that’s all I am. So if you’re looking for a valid opinion from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, go buy a copy of On Writing or something like that. But it seems to me that writing about conflict, if you want it to be good, has a lot less to do with sadism and more to do with its opposite, with compassion.

Think about it: You want the reader to be right there with the character while this is happening. You want them to be so close to the character that when the character is driven into a serious situation of conflict and comes away changed, the reader comes away a little changed, too. That’s all writing is supposed to do. What does this necessitate if not compassion? If you’re just sitting there having fun while you torment this character, and that’s the only motivation behind any of it, then that’s not going to lead to any real end. Really caring for and thinking about the characters, even while you’re writing them into difficult situations, makes those situations more layered, even if that’s only happening subconsciously.

I didn’t even start thinking about this until pretty recently. People ask me every once in a while why I like writing; three or four times in school I’ve had to write essays about it. I never know what to say. I want the answer to be really complicated, and/or really passionate. Like I write to uncover the truths of the world, which isn’t true at all because I think you can find truth doing anything, or Writing helps me deal with the demons of my own subconscious, or the standard fallback, Writing is my passion/I need it like I need air/look at me I shed paper, I bleed typewriter ink if you can believe it. It’s different for everybody but for me, that’s kind of BS. The real answer is that whatever my reasons, I don’t really think about them too much. I think writing is really fun.

Like I said before, enjoying writing about conflict is a big part of that fun. I only realized pretty recently that that’s not because I enjoy causing my characters pain in and of itself. It’s because I love figuring out how to make conflict mean something. It’s like a big puzzle — sorting out how to fit it into the rest of the story, making sure it’s relevant and will mean something to somebody. This sounds technical but it really isn’t — it’s a matter of figuring out how to conjure up emotions out of completely nowhere, of looking at something as neutral as a piece of paper and somehow finding a way to make someone look at it and feel grieving or angry or relieved. That’s true emotion and there’s nothing technical about it, because if there were, then maybe it would be easier to become good at it. I believe in magic because when I read stuff by Katherine Anne Porter, by Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates and everyone else I look up to, I know I’m feeling it. They’ve figured out this impossible puzzle — they know how to teach me something, how to reach me and affect the way I think, even though they’ve never met me, never even seen me and never will. They’ve gotten close to something I might never touch, but it’s so worth trying.

I write because when I finish writing a story that I feel good about, it’s a feeling like nothing else I know: like I’ve gotten to know somebody who isn’t even real, but who matters anyway. Like me and them have worked together to say something that could maybe mean something to other people.

If you want to call it sadism, then fine. But the way I see it, writing is about understanding people and trying to show people how to understand you. And even if that’s an impossible puzzle, it’s a really fun one to mess around with, and I think that’s something people know — even if they only know it subconsciously, and “sadism” is the first word they can come up with for it.

Writing is obviously different for everybody, or else we would all be using it to say the same thing. For me, though, thinking about writing as an exercise in compassion has I think made my writing better than it used to be, and hopefully someday it will make me better as a person, too. I can’t say what other people use it for or how other people view it because I’m not them, but I know caring when I see it in other people’s work. This is just the way I think about writing personally these days, and I’m glad for it.